The present onslaught by Israeli military forces on the besieged Palestinian enclave of Gaza brings into sharp focus not only the stark imbalance between the military actors in the conflict, it also serves as a reminder of the abject failure of the Arab and Muslim world in militarily defending Palestinians and promoting the ultimate objective of Palestinian statehood. A brief history of what was traditionally termed as an “Arab-Israeli conflict” reveals a catalogue of shortcomings based on a range of factors including a lack of strategic thinking, the disingenuous championing of the Palestinian cause by various Arab regimes, as well as an indifference to the plight of the Palestinians.
The cause of Palestinian Arabs who were dispossessed of most of their land by Zionist Jews during the 20th century has often been framed as a clash between the modern construct of Israel and the wider Arab world. And although composed of a sizeable proportion of Christian Palestinians, the cause of Palestine has often been taken up by the wider Muslim world.
However, the historical record reveals a complexity of forces which have detracted from the perceived unity and solidarity of Arabs and Muslims in defending the Palestinians.
A useful starting point would be to examine the level of aid and assistance granted to Palestinian guerrillas during the era of the British Mandate. They were never substantively armed by neighbouring Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan who in the 1930s were British client states. This remained the case after the creation of the Arab League in 1945. It meant that Palestinian militias were no match for the Haganah and its elite Strikeforce, the Palmach, the militarised organisations attached to the Jewish Agency in Palestine.
Palestinian resistance had been severely degraded after the anti-British Palestinian insurgency conducted between 1936 and 1939. Widely known as the “Arab Revolt”, Jewish auxiliaries backed the British army and police in suppressing the Palestinian guerrillas in a counterinsurgency effort which in its late stage was decisively orchestrated by Captain Orde Wingate, an artillery officer and ardent Zionist.
The cumulative effect of the dismantling of an organised Palestinian force after the revolt and the subsequent failure of the Arab League to arm Palestinians severely affected their ability to resist well-armed Jewish forces during the crucial years leading up to 1948 when Plan Dalet was implemented during the war between Arab armies on the one hand, and the armies of the Jewish Agency (alongside the Jewish terror groups Irgun and Lehi) on the other.
The ensuing Nakba or “Catastrophe” was the inevitable consequence.
Contrary to the view imposed in Western consciousness that the aim of invading Arab armies was to destroy the about-to-be-declared Jewish state, the soldiers sent by countries such as Egypt and Lebanon – by all estimates numerically less than the Jewish combatants - were fighting not to push the Jewish settlers “into the sea”, but to hold onto territory apportioned to Arab Palestinians under the so-called UN Partition Plan of 1947.
Also, Jordan, then in possession of the finest army in the Arab world, had reached a secret nonaggression pact with the Jewish Agency. The only bone of contention would be over the city of Jerusalem which the Jordanian Army successfully defended against attacks by the Haganah.
Approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from the territories controlled by the Jewish state declared by the Jewish Agency in Palestine. Egypt and Jordan took control of Palestinian land respectively in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
While Palestinian Fedayeen attacked Israeli territory from these locations during the 1950s and the 1960s, the cause for Palestinian statehood was not taken seriously by Arab nations until the Battle of Karameh and Yasser Arafat’s emergence as a global figure of resistance.
Arafat, a civil engineer turned guerrilla, was the leader of al-Fatah, one of several groups which were part of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) of which he served as Chairman. He engineered a direct confrontation with Israeli forces by consciously making Karameh, a village in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, the location for an almost certain suicidal last stand against the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Arafat did this by contravening the first rule of guerrilla warfare by making the village his fixed base of operations.
Moshe Dayan, the former IDF Chief of Staff who was then Israel’s defence minister mobilised an IDF force to destroy Arafat and his Fedayeen. In response, the Commander of the Iraqi forces stationed in Jordan until King Hussein’s army could be reorganised and re-equipped after the defeat sustained during the Six Day War solemnly advised Arafat that he should withdraw his men to nearby mountains. The Jordanian Army gave the same advice.
But Arafat refused to heed their advice, opting instead to make a stand. In the light of the Arab humiliation inflicted by the Israelis in June 1967, he replied that a group needed to give an example of Arab courage, adding that he was prepared to “fight and die”.
Arafat had 297 guerrillas including child soldiers, one of whom asked him if they could defeat the Israelis. Arafat replied by saying “We cannot defeat them, but we can teach them a lesson.”
Arafat’s al-Fatah fighters initially shocked the invading force. The IDF arrived to find what appeared to be a ghost town, but the guerrillas sprung out of their hidden positions and threw themselves at the Israeli tanks. Some planted grenades on the tanks or exploded themselves on the tanks while strapped with grenades. A number of Israeli tank crews responded by leaping from their tanks and taking flight. But after recovering from this early jolt, the firepower of the IDF began to tell. With about two-thirds of the Palestinians killed, the Jordanians entered the fray, using artillery which enabled Fatah fighters to attack the Israelis from behind their lines.
Abu Jihad, Arafat’s right-hand man, had arranged for the Jordanians to give covering fire to the Fatah guerillas to facilitate their withdrawal. But many Palestinians and their sympathisers continue to strongly believe that the Jordanian units spontaneously came to the aid of the Palestinians out of a sense of shame at seeing the Palestinians fighting the Israelis alone.
Whatever the truth, at some point Dayan decided to withdraw the IDF who lost a total of 28 men. The Palestinians lost 93 guerrillas while 128 Jordanians were either killed or wounded.
Karameh reinvigorated the cause of Palestinian nationalism. But it also forced Arafat, on the advice of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, to begin to devise a political programme for achieving Palestinian statehood, an objective which Arafat knew could only be achieved by compromising with the Jewish state.
The task of negotiating and actualising a two-state solution would be a tough one which he knew would, at least initially, be resisted. He was also fully aware that it could lead to his assassination. However, before Arafat could begin the journey which would lead to the Oslo Accord, he had to contend with hardline members of his organisation and other groups within the PLO who sought to use other methods.
There were those Palestinian groups who, bemoaning the timidity or outright indifference of many Arab regimes to their cause, felt that the Palestinians should work towards overthrowing these governments as the route towards liberating Palestine. Arafat refused on the grounds that the PLO should not interfere in the internal affairs of Arab states, but the likes of George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) sought this route beginning with the attempt by the PFLP and other radical Palestinian groups to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. The result was that in September 1970 King Hussein ordered his army to confront them leading to the expulsion of all Palestinian militia from Jordan. The PLO relocated to Lebanon.
Arafat’s political programme had to be stalled for a good period of time because of the decision of various groups to resort to international terrorism. The Black September Organisation carried out attacks against Israeli targets, including at the Munich Games, and Jordanian ones, including the assassination of Wasfi Tal, the foreign minister. The PLPF faction led by Waddie Haddad proceeded to stage a series of plane hijackings with the help of non-Palestinians such as Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Carlos The Jackal) and the West German Revolutionary Cells. The involvement of the PLO and other Palestinian militias in the Lebanese Civil War also served as a setback to Arafat’s plans.
While the Palestinian cause remained dear to the heart of many ordinary people in the Arab world, the commitment to Palestinian liberation was not nearly as strong among Arab regimes. The fourth Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 is proof of this. Just as was the case in 1948, the main protagonists Egypt and Syria did not go to war to dismantle the Israeli state and liberate Palestine. The objectives of President Anwar Sadat and President Hafez Assad was to retake the land each nation lost to Israel in 1967, respectively the Sinai and Golan Heights. Syria totally failed. Egypt on the other hand crossed the Suez Canal and made gains before losing territory after an Israeli counterattack. Sadat, who declared the effort of his military to be a sufficient victory, went on to sign a peace accord with Israel which involved the Israelis handing back the Sinai peninsula.
But the signing of peace treaties between individual Arab states and Israel inherently works against the objective of establishing a Palestinian state. This is true not only in regard to the US-brokered Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978 and the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of 1994, it also applies to the so-called “Abraham Accords” reached in 2020, as well as the proposed normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
A just and lasting solution to the Palestinian quest for statehood can only come to fruition peacefully by a comprehensive agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbours.
The Arab League which could have been the instrument for the application of pressure on Israel to bring about a Palestinian state has been impotent. But it should be noted that the Saudi-led Arab Peace Plan adopted by the League at its 2002 summit held in Beirut did offer Israel a comprehensive peace. In return for a full normalisation of relations with Israel, the plan called for Israel to end its occupation of Arab territory seized during the war of 1967, Israel’s recognition of an independent Palestinian state composed of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, and what was termed a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue.
As Arafat had realised when formulating his political programme in the late 1960s, a compromise solution would inevitably mean that many Palestinians would not be able to re-settle in the lands from which their forebears had been expelled. He was explicit about this during the years when he painstakingly repeatedly spoke to PLO leaders until he managed to turn the majority around to his thinking to pave the way for the Oslo accord of 1994. But Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, unreasonably dismissed the Arab Peace Plan as did Binyamin Netanyahu when the plan was revived in 2007.
Yet, the Arab League has always possessed the means to aid the Palestinian cause by employing a host of diplomatic and economic measures against Israel and its Western backers. For one, the Saudis unilaterally agreed not to impose the weapon of oil sanctions. The oil embargo was used to devastating effect in 1973. But it could have been used in 1967 as a means of pressuring the West to get Israel to accept United Nations Resolution 242 which was adopted in November 1967. It could also have been used in 1982 to prevent Israel’s destructive invasion of Lebanon which resulted in the PLO’s expulsion from the country. The threat of using the oil weapon is one which could have been used as a powerful tool with the objective of resolving the Palestinian issue on the negotiating table.
The truth of the matter is that many Arab regimes, particularly those who are ruled by conservative monarchies, have often preferred for the Palestinian issue to be buried and forgotten. Many wished for the PLO to have faded away after its expulsions from Jordan and Lebanon. Countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been compromised by their levels of dependency on the United States which over the decades has backed Israel.
The present conflagration in Gaza arguably exposes the shortcomings of Arab states and the wider Muslim world.
While Gaza is presently being destroyed by Israel whose leaders have explicitly invoked the genocidal Old Testament doctrine of Amalek in response to the operation undertaken by Hamas on October 7th, 2023, there is little of substantive reaction by Arab and Muslim governments in pressuring Israel and its Western backers who have effectively given carte blanche to Binyamin Netanyahu’s government to carry on the slaughter.
The Arab and Muslim world are not purposefully applying pressure economically, diplomatically and militarily.
For one, the employment of the oil weapon would serve as a means of registering their collective disapproval in the strongest manner short of war. Iran’s suggestion that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) impose an oil embargo and other sanctions on Israel was met with muted response. The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) of which Saudi Arabia is a prominent member issued a statement saying that “no immediate action or emergency meetings were planned by the group in light of Iran's comments.” The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also announced that the organisation would not be taking any action stating that the GCC was “committed to energy security” and would not use oil “as a weapon.”
Arab states could also withdraw crucial investments made within America’s fragile, debt-ridden economy, with the confidence that they can cast their lost firmly with the rising institutions of the germinating multipolar world.
In the sphere of diplomacy, none of the five Arab states who have diplomatic relations with Israel have signalled their intent to break off their ties. Further, no Arab or Muslim state appears to have considered the application of universal jurisdiction which would enable each of them to claim criminal jurisdiction over Israeli leaders if they believe individual leaders have been complicit in the perpetration of specific war crimes against the Palestinians of Gaza, including genocide. That this would be a useful tool is illustrated by the US State Department’s public denial that it was applying pressure on Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), not to invoke the 1948 Genocide Convention at the International Criminal Court.
Finally, notwithstanding Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s recent bellicose statements regarding a possible “Crescent versus Cross” war, there is no sign that Turkey or Egypt, who possess powerful militaries are prepared to resort to the military option of rescuing Gazans from their gruesome predicament.
Polls have consistently indicated that the vast majority of Arabs have a different posture towards Israel than their leaders. It is a source of considerable embarrassment to a sizeable segment of Sunni Muslims who comprise 1.7 billion of the world’s population that many Sunnis look to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, as the force who could neutralise Israeli aggression.
Hezbollah is the only military force in the Arab world to have inflicted defeats on Israel. It is Hezbollah which caused Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation. And in 2006, Hezbollah inflicted substantial losses on the invading IDF which forced the Israeli military to withdraw after 34 days.
That Hezbollah has the capacity to inflict a strategic defeat on Israel was made clear by the pessimistic results of Exercise 'Firm Hand' and Exercise 'Chariots of Fire' conducted by Israel respectively in 2023 and 2022. Each war game posited the IDF fighting multifront wars including uprisings in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, as well as a confrontation with Hezbollah.
While Hezbollah’s skirmishing with the IDF on the Israel-Lebanon border has tied Israeli forces down in northern Israel from where Israeli settlements have been relocated at great cost to the country, there is no sign that Turkey, perhaps in combination with Egypt, are seriously considering taking military action to create a buffer between Israel and Gaza in order to stop the slaughter of Palestinians.
Turkey has the military capacity to defeat Israel in a conventional war. It has also developed a strategic relationship with Pakistan which has a nuclear weapons production capacity. Pakistan has in the past promised Islamic nations, most notably Saudi Arabia, use of what has been termed its “Islamic Bomb” if Israel threatens them.
While it is clear that a wide war in the Middle East involving Israel and a combination of Muslim adversaries would risk a devastating, even apocalyptic aftermath, the Arab and Muslim populations are wondering at what point the slaughter of a considerable number of innocent non-combatants in Gaza will reach a threshold at which point Arab and Muslim states will act in concert to use not only the full panoply of available economic and diplomatic measures, but also as a last resort, orchestrate a military intervention.
The implementation of one or a combination of these measures are arguably the only means through which the Palestinians of Gaza will be saved from being ethnically cleansed and further, could form the basis for the creation of the state Palestinians have been denied since 1948.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2023).
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He has an interest in history and geopolitics.